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Five Who Did:
The Founding of the American League
by Five Irish-American Milwaukeeans

Published 2017
Guest Bloggers, Brian Witt & Bob Buege

For well over a century, major league baseball has comprised two leagues, the National League and the American League. The junior circuit was formed at a clandestine meeting in room 185 in Milwaukee’s Republican Hotel (aka Republican House) on the evening of March 5, 1900. A historical marker commemorates the site at which that once-grand hotel stood, near the corner of what is now Old World Third Street and Kilbourn Avenue.

The Republican House

The five men most responsible for the creation of the second league met secretly in the Republican Hotel to escape the prying eyes and ears of Chicago newspaper reporters. The establishment of the new league, with a rival club in Chicago, challenged Chicago’s National League monopoly and represented a declaration of baseball war.  

The originators of the American League included two men whose names have remained prominent in baseball circles, Connie Mack and Charles Comiskey, who both became team owners. The other three were league president Ban Johnson and a pair of Milwaukee lawyers, Henry Killilea and his brother Matthew, previously the owners of Milwaukee’s team in the Western League.

The unseen person was Timothy “Ted” Sullivan, a native of County Clare, and long-time resident of Milwaukee. 

Most people do not know that the American League was founded and incorporated in Milwaukee. The fact that four of them were Irish-Americans, as well as the man who initially brought them all together, Ted Sullivan, is even less well-known.

One of the new American League franchises belonged to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers played their home games in 1900 in Milwaukee Park, a ramshackle wooden structure located between 16th and 17th Streets, with North Avenue on the north and Lloyd Street on the south. The street name gave the park the moniker by which it was commonly known, the Lloyd Street Grounds.

Lloyd Street Grounds - Milwaukee Baseball - CelticMKE

The American League in 1900 was still considered a minor league. The following year it replaced several clubs with larger eastern cities and became baseball’s second major league. The Milwaukee franchise was summarily transferred to St. Louis after the 1901 season and became the Browns. Milwaukee did not return to major league status until Lou Perini relocated his Boston Braves to County Stadium in 1953 and became the Milwaukee Braves.  

The Killelea brothers were born to Irish emigrant parents in Winnebago County. Both were outstanding athletes, and, after their graduation from college, they played semi-pro baseball together, with Matt pitching and Henry catching. Both brothers were lawyers, and both were active in the Democratic politics in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. 

Henry had also been an accomplished football player at University of Michigan, playing both quarterback and punter.  In the 1890’s, they purchased the Milwaukee Brewers of the minor league Western League. 

The Western League had a history of folding and coming back to life. In one iteration, Ted Sullivan brought the league back into existence, as well as resurrecting the Milwaukee Brewers name. Both the league and the team were taken away from him, for flooding the field so as not to play a home game against a stronger team.

In an even earlier time, Sullivan brought his protégé, and brother-in-law, Charles Comiskey, originally from Chicago, to play for Ted’s Milwaukee Alerts. Comiskey lived in Milwaukee off and on for about decade. 

In the 1890’s, the Killeleas brought a well-respected manager and player on board to manage the minor league Brewers, Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as Connie Mack. Mack had managed the Pittsburgh Pirates, and had also played for the team, a common theme at the time in baseball.  Mack would manage the team from its min or league status until it entered the American league. He lived in the area for a number of years, as he also had an ownership stake in the Brewers.

In 1894, Comiskey was managing the Cincinnati Reds when he met Cincinnati sportswriter Ban Johnson. The two of them decided to buy the Western League, with Johnson to become president. The idea was to take it to major league status, as the only major league was the National League. 

When the quintet of Johnson, Comiskey, Matt and Henry Killelea and Mack met at the Roosevelt Hotel on 3rd and Kilbourn in 1900, it was done in secret, because many of the Western League teams had minor league contracts with the National League. One of the first things done was that the league was named the American League, to keep with the patriotic theme.

Johnson also instituted a number of rules, including no swearing on the field, as he felt the Nationals were crude and vulgar, and he wanted mothers to feel good about bringing children to the matches. 

After the 1900 season, the owners announced they would be taking on major league status in 1901, and without the $2400 salary cap the NL had instituted. Over 100 players jumped to the new major league.

The original American League consisted of the Boston Americans, Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Bluebirds, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, and Washington Senators. Connie Mack owned the Philadelphia team, Comiskey the White Stockings, the Killeleas the Brewers. Other Irish-American owners were Jack Kilfoyl, co-owner of the Cleveland Blues, John McMahon and John McGraw, (also the player-manager) of the Baltimore Orioles; and James Burns of the Detroit Tigers.

1901 Milwaukee Brewers CelticMKE

The 1901 Milwaukee Brewers were well represented by the Irish. Managed by Matt Duffy, the roster included such sons of Erin as Billy Maloney; Billy Gilbert; Wid Conroy; Jimmy Burke; Hugh Duffy; Bill Friel;  Jiggs Donahue; Tom Leahy;  Joe Connor; George McBride;  John Butler; Bill Reidy; Ned Garvin; Pink Hawley; and Pete Dowling.

The 1901 Brewers played at the Lloyd Street Grounds on 16 to 18, Lloyd to North Avenues.

By 1902, the Milwaukee team had been transferred to St. Louis, where they were renamed the Brown Stockings. They played there until 1954, when the team was moved to Baltimore, and took the name of the former AL team, the Orioles. The Orioles team had been moved in 1903 to New York, where they were renamed the Highlanders, and eventually the Yankees.

Matt Killelea died of tuberculosis in 1902, after selling his portion of the Brewers/Browns to his brother, Henry. Henry sold his portion of the Browns in 1903, and after first trying to buy the Detroit Tigers and moving them to Milwaukee, then purchased the Boston Americans, renamed them the Red Sox. In 1903 he came up with the idea of a World Series, a championship game between the champions of the American and National Leagues. 

After selling off the Red Sox, he remained based in Milwaukee, content to be the legal counsel for the American League, a job he held until his death in 1939.

So, when you look at the baseball standings, think about the five Irish Milwaukeeans who created the American League right here in Milwaukee. 

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